Two more high-ranking officials of the Iranian Health Ministry and Coronavirus Combat Taskforce have joined the ministry spokesman in criticizing the data China has presented to the world about its coronavirus epidemic.
On Sunday the Health Ministry Spokesman Dr. Kianoush Jahanpur broke the silence and spoke about Iranian health officials' suspicions about the reliability of China's coronavirus data, calling it a "bitter joke".
Joining him Dr. Minoo Mohraz, a pioneer AIDS specialist and Head of the Iranian Center for HIV/AIDS on Monday said the behavior of the virus after becoming a pandemic showed divergence from what was reported by china.
"Either the virus has mutated and become deadlier, or they were slacking in providing the data," she said. "The disease has proved to be frighteningly more infectious and deadly than they reported," Dr. Mohraz who has recently recovered from COVID-19 herself pointed out.
According to Dr. Mohraz the claim that the disease has been contained in China is also uncertain. "Our experience about their scientific research has taught us not to rely on their statistics. They provide the numbers and no one can go to China and report what they see [on the ground] directly," she told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) on Monday.
Another Coronavirus Taskforce member, Dr. Hamid Souri who is an epidemiologist, is also very hesitant about the reliability of Chinese data. "The evidence shows us that what happened is worse than what the Chinese reported," he was quoted by the government news agency IRNA as saying on Tuesday.
"We could not make any judgements at first because our country had no experience [with coronavirus] to compare the results," Dr. Souri said and added that policymakers in other countries could be misled by the data that China, the first country to experience the epidemic, was providing to the rest of the world. "Wrong data leads to wrong results and incorrect policies which in turn lead to in an increase in the number of victims," he said.
Dr. Souri also said Italy's reports appear to be very reliable and pointed out that despite the earlier criticism of the steps that the country was taking and its high fatality rate they made the right decisions based on the correct data they had. "Italy is now experiencing a slowing trend [in infections and deaths] but we have unfortunately not got there yet," he said.
This could be interpreted as implying that the Iranian health system too had been misled by the data that the Chinese were providing as Souri also pointed out that in the meetings with a group of "prominent Chinese experts" there were suspicions that "lots of what was said did not add up". When the data was used in epidemiologic modelling formulas the results were different from what was claimed [to be the reality], he said.
Critics of China's policies in the Islamic Republic which considers the eastern world power its close ally may face serious repercussions from the hardliner establishment but the Chinese ambassador in Tehran did not even wait for the Iranian hardliners to react to the Health Ministry spokesman. Chang Hua took to Twitter to chastise Dr. Jahanpur even before hardliners had time to target him.
When the dispute became public, hardliners demanded that the authorities sack the Health Ministry spokesman for making damaging remarks and souring relations with China. Some went as far as calling him a "mouthpiece of Israel and America" while he tried to minimize the perceived damage by praising China for "leading the way in suppressing coronavirus and generously aiding countries across the globe".
Interestingly, contrary to the Foreign Ministry's stance, the official government news agency (IRNA) criticized the "rude" tone of the Chinese ambassador in his tweets and called the critics of the health official "Chinophiles". The contradictory stances of the two ministries is not too surprising. The foreign ministry, same as the intelligence ministry and the ministry of interior, have historically been directly controlled by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rather than the president.
The Iranian Supreme Leader's advocacy of strengthening relations with "countries of the east", that is Russia and China -- a view which hardliners at all levels also strongly adhere to -- is no secret. It is not too far-fetched to interpret the public discussion of China's role in misleading Iranian health system and the support offered by IRNA -- which more or less represents the views of the President Hassan Rouhani -- as a sign of a much deeper debate about relations with China raging inside the higher echelons of power in the Islamic Republic.